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Annette Peacock at Cafe Oto

Annette Peacock 2“I live alone,” Annette Peacock told the audience as she settled at the piano stool on Monday evening. “So I talk to myself.” The sense of a continuous interior monologue is always present in the work of this most original composer and performer, and so it was throughout the second of her two nights at Cafe Oto.

She took the stage in semi-darkness. Like Bob Dylan these days, she prefers to do without a frontal spotlight. Still slender and seemingly lithe at 74, she was wearing a grey fur hat pulled down to her eyebrows and a dark tailored jacket, possibly velvet, with ruched shoulders; she looked like something from Tolstoy, as though she’d just come indoors from a snow-covered St Petersburg street in the 1850s.

But this was Dalston in 2015, and the audience rewarded her hour-long set with such keen appreciation that it felt as though Annette Peacock’s time has come at last. Not that she is probably much concerned, having been through several brushes with fame since she arrived in Europe in 1971 with her then husband, the great Canadian jazz pianist Paul Bley, promoting the music in which they (mostly she) explored the possibilities of the Moog synthesiser.

Drawing on five decades’ worth of compositions, she dramatised her lyrics by alternating between her low speaking voice and that striking upper register. The ever-present sense of the erotic, explicit and implicit, was supercharged by the cold reverberations of her stark piano phrases, often picked out with the contrapuntal effect of a single-note line in each hand, sometimes against the background of digital string sounds from her Roland synthesiser — a pleasantly kitschy effect reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracks — and the occasional rhythm pattern from a drum machine.

The set included “The Succubus” from 1979’s The Perfect Release and “b 4 u said” from An Acrobat’s Heart, the album with a string quartet released by ECM in 2000, and “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”, first recorded by Paul Bley in 1968 and 28 years later by Marilyn Crispell (on both occasions with Gary Peacock, Annette’s first husband, on bass). There might also have been songs from 31:31, the album she quietly released on her own Ironic label in 2009, but since a new copy nowadays costs a minimum of £184 on Amazon, I’m unable to tell you that.

For her last song, she cued up a slow-jam backing track of funk bass and percussion. She sang for a while, then got up, and — while her pre-recorded voice and the instruments continued — walked quietly through the audience and away.

* The photograph was taken shortly after Annette Peacock had left the stage. Here is a track from 31:31, with an accompanying film directed by Dale Hoyt. Her first album, originally called Revenge, recorded in 1969, released in 1971 and then credited to the Bley-Peacock Synthesiser Show, has just been reissued by Peacock on her own label and under her own name, retitled I Belong to a World That’s Destroying Itself, after one of her songs. I would also recommend Annette, the album of her tunes played by Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and the trumpeter/flugelhornist Franz Koglmann, recorded in 1992 and most recently reissued on the HatHut label in 2010.


Turning Turtle

Peter EdenOf all the performances I was able to catch at this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, the one that will probably stay with me longest was the evening at Cadogan Hall titled An Evocation of Kenny Wheeler, featuring Dave Holland, Norma Winstone, Ralph Towner, Stan Sulzmann, Nikki Iles, John Parricelli, Henry Lowther, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Percy Pursglove, Louis Moholo and others, including the members of the London Voice Project. The proceedings began with a group of half a dozen trumpeters playing from the gallery above the stage and closed with a poignant recording of Wheeler playing solo, that softly burnished trumpet sound and those vaulting phrases bringing tears to more than a few eyes.

A significant absentee was the pianist John Taylor, whose death in July came 10 months after that of the trumpeter, his collaborator for four and a half decades. I went home and played Taylor’s debut album, Pause, And Think Again, released in 1971 on the Turtle label. Wheeler is prominently featured on this elegant and still striking record, recently reissued as part of a box set called The Turtle Records Story: Pioneering British Jazz 1970-71.

As that subtitle suggests, the story of Turtle Records was a short one. The box contains its entire output: just three albums. Taylor’s is one; the others are Mike Osborne’s Outback and Howard Riley’s Flight. Together they provide a valuable snapshot of British modern jazz at a particularly interesting stage of its evolution.

If Taylor’s music is characteristically considered and lyrical, Osborne’s — with Harry Beckett on trumpet, Chris McGregor on piano, Harry Miller on bass and Louis Moholo on drums — is much looser and more overtly impassioned. Riley’s trio, with Barry Guy on bass and Tony Oxley on drums and electronics, is a more cerebral unit, its music offering a greater challenge than that heard on the pianist’s earlier albums for CBS, Angle and The Day Will Come.

Turtle was founded in London by Peter Eden (pictured above), a record producer whose credits already included the early Deram albums by Mike Westbrook, John Surman, Alan Skidmore and Mike Gibbs. He moved on to Dawn, a Pye subsidiary, where his artists included Mike Cooper, Mungo Jerry, and the Trio, as Surman, Barre Phillips and Stu Martin called their group. And then, frustrated by the inadequacies of the major labels, Eden made what must have seemed the logical next step, striking out on his own.

All three Turtle albums had the benefit of excellent recording quality, good pressings and almost excessively lavish packaging. The gatefold sleeves of the Riley and Taylor albums featured semi-abstract artwork, making them look like the products of the progressive rock bands of the time. Eventually, not surprisingly, they became collectors’ items. The new box set miniaturises the original artwork and contains a booklet featuring highly detailed sleeve notes by Colin Harper, incorporating the views of several of the participants.

Eden was a modest and unobtrusive man of great discernment. He chose to work with highly creative musicians and let them get on with it. The contents of the box set show how well he succeeded, even if the market did not agree.

* The Turtle Records Story is released by Cherry Red.


P.F. Sloan 1945-2015

P.F. Sloan 2The songwriter P.F. Sloan died this week, aged 70. More than 40 years ago, the record producer Lou Adler told me a story about him that still makes me smile, even though it had the polish of a tale that had been told many times and perhaps enhanced by the process of repetition.

It was in 1964 that Adler had signed the teenaged Sloan to his publishing company, along with his writing partner, Steve Barri. The duo’s early pop hits included “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Summer Means Fun” for Bruce (Johnson) and Terry (Melcher), and “A Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits.

But Adler had a new idea. He’d noted Bob Dylan’s growing celebrity and thought that Sloan might have potential in that direction. One day in 1965, he told me, he gave the 19-year-old a corduroy cap, an acoustic guitar and a copy of Dylan’s most recent album, shut him in a room — it might even have been a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel — for a weekend, and told him to write some songs. When Sloan emerged, it was with “Eve of Destruction”. After Barri had added a couple of lines (to be precise: “You may leave here for four days in space / But when you return it’s the same old place,” he told the New York Times‘s obituaries writer this week), it was ready for its destiny as a worldwide hit for Barry McGuire.

Sloan quickly came up with other soft-protest folk-rock songs, including “The Sins of a Family”, which became his own single, “Leave Me Be” for the Turtles, and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” for the Searchers. But after he returned from a trip to London with McGuire, during which they both appeared on Top of the Pops, Barri noted a change. “When he came back he was never really the same person,” he told Richard Cromelin of the LA Times. “There was no more joking around. Everything was very serious, and he was angry. After a while he just broke off all relationships with everybody and we lost contact for many, many years.”

Those lost years, which included addiction and mental illness, prompted Jimmy Webb to write “P.F. Sloan” in 1970. Sloan had re-emerged long before Rumer covered Webb’s song a couple of years ago, and in 2006 he re-recorded the biggest hit from his catalogue as part of an album for the Hightone label, produced by Jon Tiven. It’s a wonderful version, making “Eve of Destruction” sound like the serious song the 19-year-old composer had probably intended it to be. Here he is that year, performing the song in a Los Angeles club.

His original demo is on an album called Here’s Where I Belong, a selection of his recordings for Adler’s Dunhill label between 1965 and 1967, compiled by Tim Forster for Ace’s Big Beat label. As well as the better known songs, it reveals gems — previously unknown to me — like “From a Distance” and “I Can’t Help But Wonder, Elizabeth”, which he released under the name Philip Sloan. There’s also an album in Ace’s songwriters series devoted to the songs of Sloan and Barri. It’s called You Baby and it features, among many other goodies, the Mamas and the Papas’ version of the title track. Sloan had played one of the two acoustic guitars on intro to their “California Dreamin'”: another decent claim to immortality.

* The photograph of P.F Sloan is from the cover of Here’s Where I Belong, released in 2008.

Nico in London, 1971

I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin over the past year, and every time I walk past the giant KaDeWe department store on the Ku’damm, I think of Nico. It’s where in 1953 she hung around one of the entrances, a beautiful blonde 15-year-old hoping to be spotted by someone from the fashion department. She got lucky, and from there her career took her to Paris, Rome, London (making a single for Andrew Loog Oldham’s new Immediate label in 1965), and New York, where she joined Andy Warhol’s troupe of “superstars”.

She returned to London in March 1970, her hair now the dark red favoured by her former lover, Jim Morrison. I arranged to meet her for an interview one Monday afternoon at her hotel, the Princess Lodge, off Kensington High Street. We went to a pub on Church Street, opposite Biba. She talked about going off to Ibiza, perhaps permanently (she would die there 18 years later). At some point during our conversation, a middle-aged man in a tweed suit came and sat down quite close to us. She didn’t seem to have met him before but soon she was saying goodbye and the two of them were leaving the pub together and disappearing down the street. I never quite worked that one out.

She was, of course, a marvellous enigma. Or not so marvellous, if you didn’t like the noise she made when she fired up her portable Indian harmonium and emitted that stentorian contralto, a voice like a church organ pipe. I loved it.

She made two appearances at the Roundhouse that month, and then vanished. A year later she was back, and a lot more people wanted to interview her. We were on the brink of the belated embrace of the Velvet Underground and all their works. So on February 2, 1971 she was in a BBC studio to record a session for John Peel.

This month the four songs she taped that day are released on a 12-inch 45rpm EP by Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, under the title Nico 1971: The BBC Session. The songs are “No One Is There” and “Frozen Warnings” (from The Marble Index), “Janitor of Lunacy” (from Desertshore) and “Secret Side”, which would be recorded three years later for The End, her Island album.

What these recordings allow us to appreciate is the strength of her performance. Her voice was always consistent in its accuracy and confidence; what also strikes one here is the strength of her playing of the small pump-organ. She was a very late starter in music: her soul-mate Morrison taught her how to write a lyric, and she bought the harmonium from a hippie in San Francisco in 1967.

According to her biographer Richard Witts (Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon, Virgin Books, 1993), Ornette Coleman told her that the normal way to approach a keyboard was to play the chords with the left hand in the lower register and the melody higher up with the right hand. He suggested that she might try reversing the process — which she did, with striking results.

Witts also reports Viva, another Warhol superstar, remembering that Nico practised the instrument incessantly: “She had this fucking harmonium… she would practise it for hours, simple things, chords — really annoying stuff — for hours on end. She was very serious about it, dreadfully serious, like a Nazi organist. She’d pull the curtains across and light candles around her and do this funereal singing all day long. It was like I was living in a funeral parlour.”

Whatever torture her housemates endured, it turned out to be a perfect combination, enabling Nico to perform in more or less any environment, with or without accompanying musicians, for the rest of her career. John Cale did a wonderful job of adding startlingly original arrangements to The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, but it’s interesting to be reminded by these four tracks — broadcast on Peel’s Top Gear on Saturday, February 20, 1971 — of how she could manage perfectly well without that armature.

* The signature is from a letter Nico wrote me in 1974, shortly before the release of The End, asking — too late, alas — for certain minor modifications to the artwork, including a request to make the title look more like that on the sleeve of the Doors’ albums.

Julia Holter in Islington

julia-holter-2015When I told my friend Howard Thompson that I was going to see Julia Holter at the Islington Assembly Hall last night, he said: “You should listen to her cover of ‘Hello Stranger’.” Although Howard and I have been talking to each other about music for 40 years, he was unaware that the original “Hello Stranger”, by Barbara Lewis, has been among my very favourites since it came out in the summer of 1963. It’s a perfect record, and it has a lot of memories for me. So I was not necessarily open to the idea of a cover version by some young West Coast singer-songwriter, even if she did study composition at CalArts.

It’s on Holter’s fourth album, Loud City Song, the one before her new one, Have You in My Wilderness, which is just out. And Howard was right. Her cover of “Hello Stranger” is fascinatingly inventive, removing the metred rhythm and the “shoo-bop shoo-bop” motif, embedding an introspective vocal treatment within surges of sustained strings and effects, turning the song into a memory of itself. Here it is; it’s a strange and lovely thing.

The concert was rather wonderful. From the start it was obvious that Holter is not afraid of silence. She came on with her three excellent musicians (bassist Devin Hoff, drummer Corey Fogel and viola-player Dina Macabee) and when the applause had died down she spent a couple of thoughtful minutes adjusting the settings on her Nord keyboard before embarking on the first song.

What she does is art music with the occasional pop hook, like a gorgeous chord change in the mysterious “Vasquez” — the sort of thing that can suddenly pull you inside the music — and the stutter-skipping verses of “Feel You”. The textures produced by the four musicians ranged all over the place, from baroque viola and harpsichord intros to fragments of deep swing from drums and bass (a bodiless electric upright with a great sound). The contrasts, sharp but never jarring, are controlled by tight editing: an abundance of ideas, but no sprawl. Occasionally a piece will conclude with a perfectly formed coda containing new material; she clearly has no shortage of that. Her voice can change from song to song, the tone and attack manipulated in a variety of ways, the vowels and consonants subjected to different shaping and attack, creating a subtly new character for the piece in question. Not many singers do that.

Holter has a very compelling stage presence. She’s a bit of an actress, but in a good way. Her serious face breaks into sudden knowing smiles at unexpected moments, there’s a bit of business with the hair (although not too much), and she inhabits each song fully. So do we.

* The photograph of Julia Holter is by Tonje Thilesen.

Allen Toussaint 1938-2015

Allen Toussaint 2When someone like Allen Toussaint dies, you go straight to your record collection. In this case the first disc I pulled out was Lee Dorsey’s “Freedom for the Stallion”, one of the most quietly moving songs to come out of the civil rights era: “Big ships sailing / Slaves all chained and bound / Heading for a brand-new land / That some cat said he upped and found / Lord, have mercy, what you gonna do / About the people who are praying to you / They got men making laws that destroy other men / They made money, Lord, it’s a doggone sin / Oh Lord, you got to help us find a way.”

Toussaint’s mournful arrangement — the slow-drag snare and bass drum, the rolling piano, the funeral-band horns — creates the perfect setting for Dorsey’s reflective vocal. There’s a great little moment at 2:24 when the tenor player starts testifying, as though unable to help himself. Such beauty.

And then Betty Wright’s “Shoorah Shoorah”, which Toussaint didn’t produce or arrange. What a song, though, inspiring a performance from a singer in delicious torment: “I check you out from the corner of my eye / You and the Devil walking side by side / You ain’t changed, let’s be real about it / And I can’t change how I feel about it.” Like Curtis Mayfield, Toussaint had a deep and natural understanding of the human condition.

Finally, here’s one he arranged and produced but didn’t write: Lou Johnson’s version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By”, in which an uptown song is taken for a ride all the way down to the edge of town, right where the swamp begins.

I spent a couple of hours with Toussaint last year, at the behest of Uncut magazine. He was wonderful value as he talked about his long history, beginning with learning to play boogie-woogie on the piano during his New Orleans childhood. “I was brought up very Catholic – a lot of Bach and classical music,” he told me. “But I heard a lot of gospel music in the baptist and holy-roller churches around the neighbourhood, and I fell in love with it, just like boogie-woogie. I first heard Professor Longhair on record, and I thought, ‘Good heavens – this is the way I want to go.’ I knew he was from New Orleans, but I wasn’t of an age where I could be where he was performing. All the kids around who tinkered with the piano, we all tried to play like Professor Longhair. One kid would have a few more notes of his music than the rest, and we’d feed off each other. So we came up as his disciples. My mother listened to Strauss and so on, so I heard that, and on the radio there was a lot of hillbilly music with the tinkling saloon pianos, and I loved that, too. It wasn’t hard to get that kind of sound, once you knew the formula. And I loved polkas. So I just found myself having equal respect for all of the genres, and everything I heard, I began trying to play.”

It’s all there, from “Do-Re-Mi” through “Fortune Teller” and “Mother in Law” to “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” and “Yes We Can”, and on to the fabulous Bright Mississippi album of 2009: the music of a very great man.


Loch_Siegfried_by_Barbara_EismannIn the full-fat era of the record industry, Siggi Loch was a very big cheese. Starting out as a teenaged Sidney Bechet fan in Hannover in the early 1950s, he played drums with his own band, the Red Onions, before taking a job as a sales rep with EMI-Electrola in 1960, aged 20. From there he became a label manager at Phonogram in Hamburg, making his first album as a producer with the saxophonist Klaus Doldinger in 1962. He moved on to Liberty/United Artists, where he was installed as managing director of a stable including Can and Amon Duul II, the pioneering German rock bands. In 1971 he joined WEA Hamburg, then the umbrella company for Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Elektra and their associated labels in Germany, becoming chairman of WEA International from 1983-87: an extremely powerful position within an industry then at the peak of its prosperity.

When he left WEA, it was with a plan that involved something more ambitious than staring at his collection of contemporary art. As he told me during a conversation over a cup of coffee in Berlin a few months ago, he wanted to return to jazz, his first love, and to put something back, via his own independent label. Based in Munich, ACT currently releases around two dozen albums a year, having become widely known for its successes with the Swedish trio of the late pianist Esbjörn Svensson and, more recently, the German piano prodigy Michael Wollny.

The obvious comparison is with another Munich-based label identified by three letters: Manfred Eicher’s ECM. But, despite their similarities (including a fondness for giving their artwork a unified look based on the founder’s personal aesthetic), the two diverge in important ways. ACT is less identified with a sound, or a particular way of recording. Loch’s taste — or at least his vision of what his label should present to the public — is looser and more eclectic. He also presents concerts, including the annual Jazz at the Philharmonie, which revives the old Berlin Jazz Festival tradition of staging events at the grand home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

In recent months, while Loch has been celebrating his 75th birthday, ACT has put out two albums that, while unlikely to shift units in EST or Wollny quantities, seem to me to be among the year’s outstanding releases. As it happens, both are by quartets with similar instrumentation: saxophone, guitar, double bass and drums. Curiously — and, I’m sure, coincidentally — the two albums share a preoccupation more usually associated with the other Munich label: a desire to paint sound-pictures of winter landscapes.

Slow Snow is a set of quietly gorgeous tone poems that find the Norwegian saxophonist and composer Tore Brunborg accompanied by three compatriots: the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the bassist Steinar Raknes and the drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. Brunborg’s lovely melodies are enhanced by an almost subliminal but telling use of electronics (contributed by Aarset and Johansen), with the leader doubling to good effect on piano. On a piece like “Tune In” the air of restraint makes Aarset’s guitar distortion all the more telling, his chords creating a mood of suppressed hysteria as Brunborg deploys his fine tone in a solo against a background that rises and falls like a house-trained version of King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic”. If this is the kind of jazz — calm, spacious, reflective, underplayed, sometimes pastoral in mood, with a muted but glowing lyricism — one has come to expect from Norwegians over the past 40 years, then the sheer brilliance of the writing and playing enables it to escape any charge of predictability with ease.

Winter Light is a more extrovert affair, under the leadership of the gifted American guitarist and composer Scott DuBois, who evokes the example of Claude Monet in his desire to capture shifting light in changing seasons. Completed by the German saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, the double bassist Thomas Morgan and the drummer Kresten Osgood, the quartet has been together for eight years and its members show every sign of great familiarity with each other’s playing. DuBois’s compositions — with titles like “Late Morning Snow” and “Night Tundra” — are devised to make the most of the musicians’ ability to go from inside to outside with complete naturalness; on the opening “First Light Tundra”, in fact, the gentle textures of the main theme are occasionally and very effectively interrupted by squalls of free playing, most notably from the bass clarinet of the remarkable Ullmann, a veteran who deserves to be better known. My admiration of Morgan is underlined by his unflagging brilliance throughout this set, in partnership with Osgood’s vigorous drumming; together they rise to the challenge set by DuBois’s furiously inventive solo on “Early Morning Forest”.

If these albums certainly make a good accompaniment to the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere, it has to be said that they’d sound good in any season: the other quality that unites them, beneath their frost-bitten tune titles, is an underlying warmth. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

* The photograph of Siggi Loch is by Barbara Elsmann (c) ACT.

Between the world and the Black Panthers

Out to LunchOthers will be better qualified to talk about the substance of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which is currently showing in London. I found it extremely moving. There’s an initial sense of exhilaration at the spectacle of the human spirit responding to adversity with pride, resilience and creativity, only for that spirit to be crushed by the relentless efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.

Nelson modulates the tone of the film to match its narrative arc with great sensitivity, and that is where the soundtrack plays its part. At the start of the story we see the Chi-Lites singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” in ruffled costumes on Soul Train and hear Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You”, Philadelphia International’s most confrontational moment. These are reminders of how the ideas represented by the Panthers were able to gatecrash mainstream culture. Later the musical backdrop is supplied by the stripped-down street-funk of the early ’70s (“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band being a good example). At the close, with the Panthers’ unity and sense of purpose destroyed by police bullets (notably in the assassination of Fred Hampton, the eloquent, charismatic 21-year-old who Hoover feared would become the movement’s “messiah”) and internal rivalries (the post-prison Huey P. Newton versus the exiled Eldridge Cleaver), the profound darkening of the mood is expressed through the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, singing “Winter in America”.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a recent best-seller which takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, relating Coates’s own experiences as a black boy growing up in America. His grandfather was a research librarian at Howard University in Washington DC, with a profound love of books: “…all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room…” His parents were radicals: “We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” His father had been a captain in the Black Panther Party.

The book is a brilliant analysis of the journey taken by several generations of African Americans, always facing the same enemy. Coates was born in 1975: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He was 11 years old when another boy pulled a gun on him. His son’s reality is the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nelson’s film contains another music-related moment that made me catch my breath. We see photographs of the room in a Panther house on Chicago’s West Side where Fred Hampton was gunned down by police in December 1969, its layout revealed to them by an FBI informant. Amid the blood-spattered debris lying on the bedroom floor, it’s possible to glimpse the sleeve of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. On its appearance in 1964, Dolphy’s album represented a high point in the African American research project that jazz had become. It’s still being analysed and copied today. And to me it’s an affirmation of some sort that Out to Lunch was part of the soundtrack of that Panther household, and — or so we may infer — of Fred Hampton’s short life.

Dick Twardzik 30/4/31–21/10/55

Dick_TwardzikTomorrow evening it will be exactly 60 years since the pianist and composer Dick Twardzik was found dead in his room at the Hôtel de la Madeleine on the Rue de Surène, in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. He was on tour in Europe with the Chet Baker Quartet, and the previous night they had played at the Club Tabu, where they were joined by the great Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin. After returning to the hotel in the early hours, they were due to reconvene at 4pm for a recording session at the Pathé-Magellan studio. When, after an hour, he hadn’t showed up, a search party went back to the hotel and his body was discovered. A heroin overdose had killed him. He was 24 years old.

Twardzik was a prodigy. Born in Boston, the son of two artists, he had studied with Madame Margaret Chaloff of the New England Conservatory of Music, a renowned teacher who is better known to jazz fans as the mother of Serge Chaloff, one of the great post-war baritone saxophonists. Serge and Dick would play and record together. And share a heroin habit that eventually killed the other man, too.

By the time Twardzik was 21, he was good enough to play with Charlie Parker. You can hear the results on Boston 1952, a Parker album compiled from radio broadcasts recorded at the Hi-Hat Club and released on the Uptown label a few years ago. Symphony Sid Torin, the radio show’s announcer, can’t get the young man’s name right, but listen to the wonderful inventiveness of the piano solo on a relaxed “Don’t Blame Me”, to the way he spins out his double-time lines, shaping them so beautifully, allowing them to float and curl and wind before moving into a passage of contrapuntal and parallel lines, followed by the lightest of block chords. By that time, he had already been using heroin for three years.

After Bud Powell, he might have become Parker’s most stimulating keyboard partner, if they’d both lived and been given time to develop their partnership. Twardzik’s ear and imagination, and his knowledge of modern classical music, would surely have appealed to Bird, and might have inspired an escape from the bebop cul-de-sac into which Parker was heading by the time of his own death in 1955.

But that’s speculation. What we know is that Twardzik made a brilliant set of trio recordings for the Pacific Jazz in October 1954, half a dozen tracks first issued as one side of an LP called Trio which he shared with the group of Russ Freeman, his predecessor as Baker’s pianist, who had brought him to the attention of the label’s boss, Dick Bock. The tracks, with one addition, were later released by themselves as The Last Set. There are three standards — “Round Midnight”, “I’ll Remember April” and “Bess You is My Woman” — along with three of his own compositions, all of them immediately striking, and not just for their titles: “Albuquerque Social Swim”, “Yellow Tango”, “A Crutch for the Crab”. They’re as full of playful character and unexpected twists as those of Herbie Nichols — a comparison that also strikes Alexander Hawkins, the English pianist, who is a student of such matters and a confirmed Twardzik fan. Thinking you might like a break from my views, I asked Alex for a few words. Here’s some of what he sent me:

For me, he fits squarely within that magical clutch of pianists from mid-century who are just so wonderfully sui generis (Monk, Powell, Hope, Nichols, and a few years later, the likes of Hasaan etc). I think it naturally comes out most clearly in his compositions; and to me it’s extraordinary to reflect that we can get such a strong sense of a radical original from so few works. However, it’s also fascinating to listen to him play standards: his arranger’s touch was such that he could make such a ‘standard’ standard as “I’ll Remember April” all his own – in the way he mysteriously stalks the notes of the first eight bars of this over the swinging drums, I hear a weird pre-echo of Misha (Mengelberg) and Han (Bennink).

I love the headlong intensity and clarity of purpose, despite such knotty compositions: in this I hear a real kinship with Bud Powell (“Glass Enclosure”, etc). There’s also clearly an affinity with Bartok, Hindemith, and so on; and I hear elements of Bernstein and Sondheim, too. I can also hear a possible line through to early Cecil Taylor. In the way both composers graft together different melodic/rhythmic strands, I hear some deep similarity with (especially pre-Unit Structures) Cecil: in particular, I’m thinking of the session which produced ‘Pots’, ‘Bulbs’, and ‘Mixed’, and also tunes like ‘Excursion on a Wobbly Rail’. I also hear a kinship with Cecil in the love of contrary motion figures.

The historical context also fascinates me too: just like with Bird, Hasaan, Nichols – where on earth could this music have gone had he lived? It’s so much at the vanguard of what seemed possible at the time that trying to put oneself in contemporary shoes as far as possible and hearing the future directions is completely baffling, and as such, deeply inspiring as a player and composer.

After Twardzik arrived in Le Havre on the liner Île-de-France on September 13 with the rest of Baker’s rhythm section — the bassist Jimmy Bond and the drummer Peter Littman — and met up with the trumpeter, the band began their tour at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (supported by the Tony Crombie All Stars!) and continued through Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. There were 10 concerts in all, several of which were recorded and are available on various bootlegs. In Paris on October 11 and 14 they also recorded the nine tracks — eight compositions by Bob Zieff, a friend of Twardzik’s from Boston, and one by the pianist himself — that would make up one of the most remarkable small-group records of the 1950s.

Zieff’s cool little pieces have wonderful beatnik titles: “Rondette”, “Mid-Forte”, “Sad Walk”, “Pomp”, “Brash”. Perfectly balanced and slightly formal modernist mechanisms, they’re clean-lined but unpredictable, absolutely devoid of any hint of cliché (jazz or otherwise), stretching the musicians — particularly the trumpeter and pianist — in interesting ways without inducing contortions. It’s no surprise to discover that Gil Evans later became a fan of the composer, and a terrible shame that he was destined to remain in obscurity. And Twardzik’s tune, “The Girl from Greenland”, is typically intriguing and memorable.

Issued on the Barclay label in France soon afterwards, this set is still available and is, I’d say, essential — not just for itself, but also because it represents the last view we would ever get of a great talent taken away, like so many others, by a plague that is still with us, and still taking lives.

* If you want to know more, I warmly recommend Jack Chambers’ excellent biography, Bouncin’ with Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, published in Canada by the Mercury Press in 2008, from which the photograph is taken. There’s also an interesting CD of Twardzik’s home rehearsal recordings called 1954 Improvisations, all variations on standards, released by the New Artists label in 1990. Recordings of the Baker Quartet’s concerts in Cologne, Amsterdam and elsewhere are available on various bootlegs.

Don Henley’s Cass County

Don Henley - Publicity Shot #2 (Credit Danny Clinch)During one of the interviews given to promote his new solo album, Don Henley mentioned that he writes poetry. When his voice gives out, he said, that’s probably what he’ll turn to. This would have been no surprise to admirers of “The Boys of Summer”, his solo hit from 1984, which has an opening verse whose perfect cadences seem to come complete with punctuation: “Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air: the summer’s out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets; the sun goes down alone. I’m driving by your house though I know you’re not home.”

It’s a great pop song, of course, with a dark undertow — just like many of the best Eagles songs, from “Hotel California” to “King of Hollywood”. In the Eagles’ world, no pleasure was ever unmixed. The same trait also marked out the best products of Henley’s solo career, including the four great songs from The End of the Innocence, his third solo album: “The Last Worthless Evening”, “New York Minute”, “The Heart of the Matter” and the title track. These were songs that had something to say about the human experience back in 1989 and have lost none of their truth and resonance.

His new album, Cass County, contains many outstanding moments, beginning with the opening track, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose”, a gorgeous slow waltz with a killer chord change, in which Henley takes the first verse, Miranda Lambert the second, and Mick Jagger — in his “Wild Horses” mode — the third. It’s one you can play over and over again, just waiting for that change, which Henley brings out more effectively than Merritt did on her excellent original version in 2002 (clue: listen for the words “a bramble rose”).

The album arrived on a Saturday morning. I put it on while I was having breakfast and ended up playing it all the way through three times, non-stop. Among the other notable tracks are Jesse Lee Kincaid’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”, a favourite from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite album back in 1968; the rocking “That Old Flame”, with a great lyric on which he’s joined by the wonderful Martina McBride; and Jesse Winchester’s ever-lovely “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”. Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton are among the album’s other participants.

On these songs, the poetry isn’t in the words. It’s in Henley’s voice. That sound of bruised longing is one we know so well,  immediately evoking good and bad times and the complex feelings that went with them. Whatever he had back then, he’s hung on to it.

* Cass County is out now on Capitol Records. The photograph of Don Henley was taken by Danny Clinch.


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